Clarke’s clever use of Scotland’s talent pool is paying dividends
THIS may feel strange to read, but one of Scotland’s biggest problems in recent years has been having too many good players in the same position.
There are an abundance of options in midfield to choose from, and that has caused headaches in the past. But Steve Clarke is finally finding an effective way to utilise them.
Against Cyprus, he selected Ryan Jack, Callum McGregor, John McGinn and Ryan Christie alongside natural winger James Forrest in his midfield five.
Premier League players such as Kenny McLean, John Fleck and Stuart Armstrong were unused. So, too, was Graeme Shinnie, who has become a key man for English Championship outfit Derby County of late.
When you also take into account the fact that Manchester United regular Scott McTominay isn’t in the squad due to injury, it’s easy to understand why picking a workable midfield is so difficult.
Clarke wants to get his best players into the line-up, but he also doesn’t want to crowbar too many square pegs into round holes and sacrifice balance in the process.
In the 2-1 win over Cyprus, he appeared to find a solution to the problem with a system he often deployed as Kilmarnock manager. During his time at Rugby Park he used a 4-4-1-1 with two deep central midfielders in front of the centre-backs, both full-backs overlapping and allowing the wingers to come inside, and someone – be it Youssouf Mulumbu or Greg Stewart – playing off of a lone striker. This was precisely how Scotland lined up last weekend.
Jack and McGregor took up roles they’re used to playing at club level.
McGregor played on the left side of a central midfield duo, just as he does for Celtic with Scott Brown.
Jack is used to playing in a three at Rangers, but his responsibilities here were similar as he often dropped deep to receive possession from the centre-backs.
Their deeper positioning gave support to Declan Gallagher and Scott McKenna, helped Scotland to establish control in the build-up and allowed full-backs Liam Palmer and Greg Taylor to advance down their flanks. This in turn meant Christie and Forrest could drift inside and play in more central areas.
Christie’s natural instinct is to cut in onto his left foot, and this proved dangerous throughout the first half.
As Cyprus’ central midfielders struggled to get to grips with Jack and McGregor’s deep positioning, space opened up between the lines for Christie to exploit by combining with teammates, playing through balls beyond the last line, or getting a shot off. He opened the scoring for Scotland, but it was McGinn who sealed the three points with a goal of his own.
The 25-year-old has made an impression with his runs from deep for Aston Villa this season, scoring three goals in 12 Premier League outings, so Clarke’s decision to play him in a more advanced role here made a lot of sense.
The decision paid dividends when McGinn attacked the box and latched onto a cross from the left-hand side to score on 53 minutes.
The positioning of Christie and McGinn also helped Scotland defensively, as Clarke had them press high early on. Cyprus lined up with a back three, and Christie was responsible for closing down their left centreback whenever he received a sideways pass.
McGinn covered the deepest Cypriot midfielder, but he also stepped up to press their centre-backs on back passes.
The pair’s aggression and intelligence had a huge impact on the success of Scotland’s high press, forcing Cyprus into a number of inaccurate long balls.
Not only do these midfielders possess quality, but they are also versatile.
When Scotland took the lead for a second time, Clarke changed shape slightly from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-5-1, with McGinn dropping back into midfield.
He was still tasked with pressing the opponent’s central midfielders, and McGregor started to join him in this endeavour. Jack then became the only real “holding” midfielder.
Subtly, Clarke is starting to tap into the vast reserves of talent at his disposal.
He will be hoping for another morale-boosting win over Kazakhstan tonight, and his midfield selection could prove pivotal once again.